One of the biggest storylines in the UFC this year has been the question of when Conor McGregor would reenter the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testing pool, the first step for the UFC’s biggest star to return to the Octagon.
The news that McGregor was back in the pool came officially last Wednesday. And it ended up leading to more questions than answers.
Tucked into the announcement that McGregor had reentered, USADA also announced its partnership with the UFC was ending at the end of 2023 after eight years. The statement from USADA CEO Travis Tygart called into question the UFC’s motives for deciding to part ways with the anti-doping agency.
Last Thursday, the UFC called a news conference with chief business officer Hunter Campbell and Jeff Novitzky, senior vice president of athlete health and performance. Novitzky has been involved in anti-doping for over two decades, previously as a federal agent investigating Major League Baseball, cycling and more.
In the news conference, Campbell and Novitzky blasted Tygart’s statement, threatened legal action against USADA and announced the formation of a new UFC anti-doping program beginning in January.
There is a lot to unpack with this situation. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions related to USADA, McGregor, the UFC’s new anti-doping program and more.
Why are the UFC and USADA parting ways?
It depends on who you ask.
USADA’s position, courtesy of a statement sent to the media Wednesday, is that the UFC did an “about-face” on the relationship after there had been positive talks on extending the two companies’ relationship back in May. Tygart said he believes the UFC wanted to play favorites with McGregor, the promotion’s biggest star, in the anti-doping process by exempting him from an important rule. More on that rule shortly. But Tygart told ESPN that USADA’s “public insistence” that the rule apply to all athletes, including McGregor, is what “clearly upset [the UFC] and that’s what led to the about-face.”
In the UFC news conference Thursday, Campbell said that narrative was untrue. Novitzky called USADA’s statement “garbage.” Campbell said the idea to move on from USADA was born a year ago because the UFC felt that with the technology currently in place and new organizations emerging in the anti-doping space, a better job could be done with a new program. Campbell said that eight years ago, USADA was basically the only game in town as far as what the UFC was looking for in a third-party anti-doping partner, but that the organizations are no longer a good fit today. Campbell and Novitzky mentioned promises USADA made on the technology side that it never delivered and cited the unhappiness of some fighters about the existing program, including the timing of when fighters get drug tested.
Is this all about Conor McGregor?
If you ask Tygart, his answer would be yes. He believes, based on statements made by McGregor, UFC president Dana White and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, that the UFC is moving on from USADA because of the case surrounding McGregor.
What is that case exactly? Well, McGregor broke his leg in a July 2021 fight and then, after surgery, removed himself from the USADA drug-testing pool while in the process of recovery and rehab. He has not been tested in more than two years. The UFC’s anti-doping policy, written jointly by the promotion and USADA, states that a fighter returning to the pool must be in said pool for six months (or more) and pass two drug tests before returning to the Octagon.
The UFC does have the ability to waive the six-month rule if it deems it would be unfair to the athlete. Even if the rule is waived, the fighter returning to the pool must pass two drug tests before competing again. The UFC has given this exemption before, to Brock Lesnar and Miesha Tate. Both had extenuating circumstances. Lesnar had never been in the pool before, since his previous time in the UFC was before USADA ran the anti-doping program. Tate retired from the UFC to have children.
In Lesnar’s case, he tested positive for the banned substance clomiphene in pre-fight tests before his 2016 return at UFC 200, but the results did not come back before the fight against Mark Hunt. Lesnar also failed a fight-night test. He beat Hunt, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission overturned the win and Lesnar was suspended for one year by USADA. Hunt ended up suing Lesnar and the UFC for criminal conspiracy, with Hunt claiming the UFC knew Lesnar was doping. Hunt lost the case, which finished just last month, seven years later.
The aftermath of Lesnar’s positive tests led to a new rule in addition to the six-month provision. That rule states that any athlete reentering the pool must declare any prohibited substances they took while out of the pool. While back in the pool, if a fighter tested positive for one of those declared banned substances, it would not be a violation. However, USADA could extend the fighter’s time in the pool at its discretion.
Perhaps not wanting another Lesnar situation, USADA stated multiple times privately to the UFC and even publicly in statements to the media that its stance was that McGregor should spend at least six months in the drug-testing pool before fighting again. McGregor said in multiple interviews that he felt he should only have to pass the two drug tests before being able to compete.
White told TSN in July, regarding USADA’s stance on McGregor, “Who cares what USADA says?” and that McGregor could still fight before the end of the year (despite not being in the pool yet). Rogan said on his podcast last month that he didn’t believe in the six-month rule and that the UFC should take its anti-doping program in-house.
“They don’t like having someone else have influence, I guess, that the rules should apply to every athlete,” Tygart told ESPN. “No athlete is above the rules. Even if you’re a publicly traded company and you might stand to make $100 million at the end of the fiscal year, or something.”
Ironically, in the same statement USADA issued about the UFC partnership ending, it also announced McGregor was back in the drug-testing pool. McGregor reenrolled as of Oct. 8, per Tygart. Tygart said he didn’t know if the UFC would honor the six-month rule, as USADA will no longer be working with the promotion after Dec. 31.
Conversely, Campbell vehemently denied that the UFC’s decision to leave USADA had anything to do with McGregor. He blasted USADA for lumping McGregor into the statement issued Wednesday and accused them of using McGregor’s name to garner the agency more media coverage of the situation.
“What they’ve done to him is disgusting,” Campbell said. “And for an entity that holds themselves to have a level of honor and integrity, using him as a media vehicle to advance a fake narrative is disturbing, disgusting and I think they have some legitimate legal liability that they should be very concerned with.”
As far as McGregor fighting is concerned, there doesn’t seem to be any impediment to that happening now. The UFC seems willing to honor the six-month rule, even if the USADA contract is over Dec. 31. The best bet is McGregor headlining UFC 300 in April against Michael Chandler.
Why has the UFC threatened legal action?
See Campbell’s quote above. At the news conference last Thursday, the UFC distributed a legal letter that Campbell said was sent to USADA after USADA’s statement. The letter claims that Tygart’s words in the statement were defamatory and the UFC’s outside counsel demanded USADA apologize for and retract the statement by 5 p.m. the same day, Oct. 12.
USADA did not do either of those things. In a statement to ESPN after the news conference, Tygart said, “We stand by our statement and our credibility.”
The legal letter sent to USADA reads that the UFC has the right to assert such a claim of defamation “when the damaging comments negatively impact its reputation, integrity and honesty, which is exactly what occurred here.” It is certainly possible there could be a lawsuit over this situation. White has also gone off on Tygart and USADA in several high-profile interviews, including on “The Pat McAfee Show.”
In response, Tygart told ESPN on Friday: “Bluster and bravado are no substitute for clean sport, a level playing field for all competitors, and the health and well-being of all athletes.”
When does the UFC-USADA split happen, and how does that affect fighters now?
USADA will remain the UFC’s anti-doping partner until Jan. 1, 2024. Until then, everything will remain status quo. USADA will continue to test fighters in and out of competition. The current suspensions and pending suspensions will be honored, Campbell said.
Campbell and Novitzky took umbrage with parts of USADA’s statement that they said led to “massive confusion” among athletes. They said fighters and teams have come to the UFC asking if the promotion was still doing drug testing and similar questions. The answer is the UFC is not abandoning anti-doping provisions. They just won’t be with USADA after 2023.
Tygart told ESPN that USADA is “most disappointed” because clean fighters in the UFC won’t be getting an anti-doping program as good as the one USADA provides.
“There are a number of athletes within the sport that relied on us, and we gave them hope that their rights and their voice and their opportunity to compete clean were going to be honored,” Tygart said. “And unfortunately, after Jan. 1, it’s just not going to be at the same level.”
Without USADA, what does the UFC do next for anti-doping?
The new program is still coming together, but the foundation is largely in place. The UFC will use Drug Free Sport International to collect urine and blood samples from athletes. Drug Free Sport is contracted by major sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, MLB and the NCAA.
It’s important to note that going from USADA to Drug Free Sport is not a lateral move. Drug Free Sport just collects the samples and sends them to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) lab for testing. That is where Drug Free Sport’s role ends, unlike USADA, which also acted as the adjudicator of discipline in the event of positive tests.
Campbell and Novitzky announced Thursday that the UFC has brought in a new “independent administrator” for anti-doping: George Piro, a retired FBI agent with a decorated record within the agency, who is also active in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and trains at American Top Team in Florida. In addition, Dr. Daniel Eichner will be tabbed as the UFC’s science advisor. Eichner is a leading scientist in anti-doping and is the president of the WADA-accredited Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory (SMRTL) in Salt Lake City. Drug Free Sport will send UFC athletes’ samples to SMRTL for analysis.
Novitzky said that the core principles of the UFC’s anti-doping program are “integrity, independence, transparency, strength and comprehensiveness, fairness” and those tenets will not change, but will “only get stronger.” He said the UFC’s technology team is working on an easier system of recording athletes’ whereabouts, which is how sample collectors find where fighters are to test them randomly. In the new program, the public will be able to see who is tested and in greater detail than in the current system under USADA.
The new program will test more often for Erythropoietin (commonly referred to as EPO), which Novitzky called “one of the most dangerous drugs in the world,” and include innovations in blood testing that won’t be so intrusive to athletes. Novitzky said the new program would include more drug testing in general, more testing for human growth hormone and more use of “comprehensive” isotope-ratio testing. The biological passport system, which started under USADA as a way to establish baseline levels of fighters and compare them to new test analysis, will continue.
“I’ve staked my career, my reputation, my credibility — in some cases, the safety of myself and my family — and everything that I’ve done as a professional, on a personal level, on maintaining these standards and fighting with everything I have for clean sport,” said Novitzky, who was once the leading federal agent investigating doping scandals in baseball and cycling.
Who is George Piro, the UFC’s next anti-doping overseer?
Piro was awarded a national intelligence medal by the head of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for serving as the lead person interrogating Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2004 after Hussein’s capture. Most recently, Piro was the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office.
Piro is also a massive MMA fan and Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast. He has trained for years in the grappling art under former UFC veteran Wilson Gouveia. Piro has won an International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) championship in no-gi. Novitzky touted his credibility as a federal agent and his understanding of MMA at a high level as advantages Piro will have coming in as the administrator of the UFC program. He will lead investigations into UFC athlete doping and deciding on punishments.
There will likely be a learning curve for Piro regarding anti-doping, a complicated field in which he has no technical experience.
Will the new program be positive or negative for fighters?
Time will tell. One of the concerns Novitzky hammered home Thursday was over the timing of some of USADA’s drug testing, like waking up UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski during fight week before a major fight and blood testing UFC middleweight Paulo Costa while he was cutting weight. USADA sample collectors routinely showed up at fighters’ homes to test them at 6 a.m., sometimes earlier. That was something the athletes said they did not appreciate. But of course, there’s a reason for that. Early in the morning is the best time to collect samples for designer drugs like EPO.
Then there’s the question of true independence and transparency. Campbell and Novitzky used those words often Thursday. Ultimately, everyone involved in adjudicating anti-doping cases for UFC athletes will be paid directly by the UFC. That wasn’t an ideal scenario with USADA either, to be clear. The UFC paid USADA in the $7 million range annually for its services, per sources.
It is worth noting that Drug Free Sport is a for-profit company, unlike USADA, a non-profit. Drug Free Sport also does not decide who gets tested, how often and when. That will fall on Piro, per Campbell and Novitzky. The well-regarded McLaren Global Sports Solutions will still be used as an arbitrator for athletes’ cases, Campbell said. There are still several things to hash out with the program, including how therapeutic-use exemptions will be decided. Campbell alluded to a “science committee” that Piro will have at his disposal.
If the UFC’s new anti-doping program looks a lot like the ones used by the NFL, NBA and other major domestic sports leagues, that’s not a bad thing on paper. But there’s a big difference between those leagues and the UFC: collective bargaining. Most athletes in those leagues have unions and/or players associations that negotiate the ins and outs of anti-doping programs, advocating for the athletes. Plus, the associations and leagues jointly hire independent administrators for anti-doping programs. The UFC will implement its new program, including the hiring of Piro, unilaterally.
UFC fighters don’t have any formal power to protect their interests. Novitzky and other UFC execs get input from athletes regularly, but that input is not binding like it would be in a sport with collective bargaining. This is not a change from how it is with USADA, but with an in-house program, it appears the UFC will wield even more power over its anti-doping protocols.
At least one leading anti-doping agency believes the UFC will implement a laudable new system.
“[UFC’s] program will be strong with Dr. Daniel Eichner involved along with their ongoing personnel & plans,” the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency posted Saturday on X.
USADA, along with the UFC, did a lot to clean up and change the reputation of the sport of MMA, which in 2015 was just coming out of the testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) era. Fighters were using pseudoscience to get exemptions for what was essentially steroid use. Novitzky and the UFC spent many years championing the promotion’s program under USADA as the best in sports.
The trajectory of that program from here will likely be a topic of debate for some time, especially given the acrimonious split between the UFC and USADA.